The History of @ or “Commercial at” Sign
Have you ever wondered where that cute little @ originated from? You know, that sign that is part of your (and everyone else in the world's) email address? Yes, that’s right, the @ that you use a hundred times a day as you send and answer emails. Hmmmm... Some Internet wizard, you say? Some progressive email site? Google? Al Gore?
The @, which is officially called the “Commercial at” in English, has been around for 100’s of years, if not more. In fact, it is believed that the @ could be over a thousand years old.
Some speculate that the @ was first invented by monks, whose job was to keep precise and legible records of all pertinent historical facts; the word in Latin was “ad”. The monks began to curl the D around the A so as to:
- Save time, when writing 1000’s of words per day.
- Still keep things legible.
Legend also has it that the @ went on to become the symbol for a measurement that set the amount of product, whether grain or spices, that could be held in a terra cotta jar, called an amphora. It is said that the @ was seen in the writing of the monks’ logs, by a famous trader who decided it would make a great acronym for amphora. The amphora was the principle mode of transporting commodities, which besides grains and spices, also included oils, wine, and even fish. The amphora was popular up until the 7th century.
Others say that the @ was definitely used as a means of quantity but instead evolved in the 1500’s from the French a’ which meant the commercial price of something or the rate of exchange for an item.
Apples a’ 5 cents apiece,
Or, as the English and Americans came to use it:
Apples @ 5 cents apiece.
Thus the name ”Commercial at” came to be.
Now it is one of the most well known signs in any language, at least to all computer geeks, and is an important symbol in the vast world of communications. Still, one of the odd things about this famous symbol is that there is no universal name for it, even though it is part of every email across the globe.
For instance, in Dutch our little @ is called apenstaartie, which means monkey’s tail, but the Danes like to call it an elephant’s trunk (snabel). The Koreans see the @ completely different and call it dalphaengi, which is a “snail”.
The @ became a significant symbol in computer usage by a programmer named Ray Tomlinson in 1972. The few existing networks of that day had asked Tomlinson to devise a program that would work for a universal electronic mail system.
Tomlinson’s task was to find a way that would clearly separate a user name from a domain. It had to be something that could never appear in a person's name plus the symbol would not work if it was a letter or number. And because the @ actually means "at", it became the perfect separator/connector of the human and machine sides of the Net.